The most commonly used treatments for lung cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The exact treatment a lung cancer patient receives will depend on several factors. These include the type of cancer, the stage or extent to which it has spread at the time of diagnosis, and the overall health of the patient.
Non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for about 80 percent of lung cancer cases, is treated depending on its stage at diagnosis. Lung surgery is the mainstay of treatment for the early stages of lung cancer. Cancerous tissue, along with a margin of healthy tissue, is removed. Patients who are unable to have surgery may be treated with radiotherapy. While cure rates for early lung cancer are good, it is rarely detected in its early stages. As non-small cell cancer spreads within the chest, it is treated with some combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Once cancer has spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy and radiotherapy replace surgery as the main treatment options. A number of drugs are available, and many more are being tested in clinical trials. Radiotherapy is palliative, and while it may ease symptoms such as pain and cough, it will not stop cancer growth. If the cancer obstructs a major airway, using a laser, freezing the tumor or keeping the airway open with a stent or tube may remove the obstruction.
Small cell lung cancer, which is found in about 20 percent of lung cancer patients, is more aggressive and more likely to have spread by the time of diagnosis. It is therefore treated primarily with chemotherapy. Radiotherapy to the chest may also be used to kill off remaining cancer cells. This type of cancer often spreads to the brain. This is why radiotherapy to the brain may be used as a prophylactic even if no cancer is detected in the brain.